Truth and Death

A South Korean soldier wants to take his squadmate to a party… in North Korea. It’s JSA’s most powerful scene. There’s hardly any dialog. The camera doesn’t even pan between faces. Instead, the view is just a line on the ground, two pairs of military boots facing one another on each side. One of those pairs shakes in fear. An imaginary line makes someone trained to shoot others cower at the mere thought of  step.

It’s easy to connect JSA to 1914’s Christmas truce, where World War I’s opposing sides left their bunkers to celebrate the holiday in peace. Here though, it’s Korea, locked more in a war of attrition, defined by arbitrary borders, propaganda, and egos. Happenstance breaks those ingrained differences. Human nature – the best kind – wins over hate.

JSA deals in real world tensions. It’s authentic and true

JSA deals in real world tensions. It’s authentic and true. There’s disdain for both nation’s attitudes to a degree, a story centered on irritation, frustration, and lives stalled by tiresome bickering.

Released in 2000, little changed in the two decades that followed. JSA made a point, how politics and division kept otherwise reasonable, similar people hating one another for too long. International politics ensured nothing changed, even as four soldiers, two from each side, bond each night in secret, playing games and chatting. Lines don’t define the people on those separated sides.

Using a smart narrative tactic, JSA plays out via a Swedish investigation over a shoot-out on the border. Jumps between past and present, truth and lies draws significant drama. What’s revealed is a genuine fear that these independent Swedes will learn not who shot first or who killed who, rather the reality of the friendships forcibly broken to maintain nationalist agendas. These characters don’t worry about being jailed for shooting their supposed opposition, rather someone might discover they didn’t immediately pull the trigger on first sightings.

While star Yeong Lee-Ae isn’t particularly convincing as daughter to a Korean father who escaped to Sweden (and the English-speaking actors don’t help her), as JSA moves forward, she becomes a background part. Parasite’s Song Kang-Ho carries the drama as a North Korean soldier, choosing to act with empathy rather than force. Seeing his distrust break down becomes JSA’s defining character arc, turning to tragedy by the end because the false attempts to fix things force everyone into their pre-defined corners. The line wins. Always.


A pleasing effort from Arrow produces an attractive master. Well managed grain holds on to a film-like appeal. Other than noise in certain bright reds (North Korean uniforms), the overall look creates a pure image, flawlessly compressed onto a digital medium.

The end result allows detail to swell, resolving facial texture gorgeously. While not the sharpest source, that’s no cause for any loss. Generally contained to a few locations, simple environments pose little challenge given their limited texture. A thick cornfield marks the toughest moment, still readily handled. Resolution ensures clarity.

Likely an aesthetic choice, black levels lack density. Even calling them dark gray is offering them more credit than deserved. Given the intense contrast, the disc isn’t at fault; the balance exists, if not on the camera negative. Reduced color halts primaries, taking a more dour tone, although certain hues do stick out. Flesh tones carry a definite vibrancy.


In DTS-HD 5.1 (a PCM stereo track the alternative), gunfire finds a location anytime it erupts. Active surrounds engage each time, spreading the soundstage, utilizing the stereos too. A key dramatic moment late places and shots in the left rear specifically, perfect positioning for that instance.

Passable LFE accentuates truck engines and larger guns. By no means a room rattler, the effect is still there to show active range.


Along with an isolated score track, there’s an option for a commentary from Simon Ward. Into the extras menu, Korean film expert Jasper Sharp speaks on JSA and director Park Chan-Wook in a 35-minute essay. Five older featurettes vary between behind-the-scenes clips, interviews, and EPK material. Music videos and promos mark the finale.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

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Choosing to explore the tensions between Korea’s borders through unlikely friendship, JSA ends in humanist tragedy.

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